Friday, November 6, 2009

Sunday, September 6, 2009

THE POETRY CHAIN GANG (part 15 w/ Jennifer Chang)

The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Jennifer Chang.

BT: I would love to write a poem about a poet. Have you ever written a poem about a poet? If not, what poet could you see writing a poem about?

JENNIFER: I recently put Frank O'Hara in a poem about looking at a field and thinking about the death of my friend's dog, Tammy. I was mad at myself for writing yet another poem about a field, even though it was about my friend's loss, but then it was about what draws artists to our subject matters and I started incorporating an exchange about art
between O'Hara and Motherwell. "Shut up, and just paint the pictures," Motherwell says at one point, frustrated with all their navel-gazing.

Anyway, I feel better when I think about Frank O'Hara and he's in there because he's a hero and a specific word like "Gauloise" and what's weirder than a nature poem with Frank O'Hara in it? I also have a poem with Andres Breton in it. It's about not wanting to leave the house. Clearly, neither of these are good poems, but other poets appear in my poems when I'm feeling the anxiety of influence, which is really the anxiety of self, in an especially keen way. I'd like to write a poem with Gertrude Stein in it, but Lynn Emanuel's already done that so exceptionally well. Her poem's kind of about anxiety, too.

BT: Pick a poem, any poem…

JENNIFER: "Theme for English B" by Langston Hughes

BT: I love your poem Pastoral where you say: "dirt and chant" and "roar and bloom." I love when poets throw together words that aren't usually thrown together. What made you put "dirt" and "chant" together?

JENNIFER: Thank you! I wrote that poem while I was staying with a flower farmer in Napa Valley. One morning I was watching her from the window working in her fields of flowers. Even though I couldn't see her face, I could tell she was so very happy out there in the dirt and in the wind. I hadn't known one could farm flowers. And there were so many flowers! Most of the poem's images and word play emerged from that experience. I liked the sound of "dirt" and "chant; they share a similar concluding consonance and yet have such different denotations.

BT: I am a logophile which is a lover of words. Do you have a favorite word at the moment?

JENNIFER: Lately, I've been thinking about, a little obsessed with, words whose roots don't quite match their current meanings, and because I just taught Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad was another logophile) I keep wondering about the repeated use of the words "absurd" and "unsound" at the end of the book. Neither word is about sound, even though both words' roots are related to hearing. So this week, I've thought about both "absurd" and "unsound" at least once a day and I know I'm going to eventually find a way to use them in a poem.

BT: I'm trying to start a chain, a chain of poets, sort of like a chain gang of poets. Can you please suggest a poet I should ask five fast questions to next?

JENNIFER: Jennifer Kronovet

Jennifer Chang’s first book, The History of Anonymity, was an inaugural selection of the VQR Poetry Series and a finalist for the Shenandoah/Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in A Public Space, Boston Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, The New Republic, and Northwest Review and she has received recent fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. A Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Virginia, she is writing a dissertation on race and pastoral modernism.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

THE POETRY CHAIN GANG (part 14 w/ Cecily Parks)

The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Cecily Parks

BT: It’s 9 p.m., are you…
a.) just putting the finishing touches on a poem?
b.) just beginning a poem?
c.) reading a poem?
d.) not even thinking about poetry?


BT: After I've read a really good poem, I always find myself in a writing mood. How do you feel after you've read a really good poem?

CECILY: A really good poem makes me feel like I might cry. I get that tingly feeling on the backs of my eyeballs.

BT: In a 1970 interview with poet Robert Graves, he had this to say: "…Writing a poem is…like finding the top of a statue buried in sand. You gradually take the sand away and you find the thing, whole— that is what poetry is, rather than building something up. It's rediscovering what you've known inside yourself the whole time, what you've foreseen." Would you agree or beg to differ?

CECILY: I agree that writing a poem allows you to rediscover something inside yourself, but I don't think that the process is as pristine as Graves suggests. Because I'm obsessed with swamps at the moment, I've come to think that writing a poem is a little bit like wading into a swamp. Maybe it's the swamp of the self, or the swamp of the mind— either way, it's messy and dark and fluid

BT: I love the idea of found poems ("Found poetry is a type of poetry created by taking words, phrases, and sometimes whole passages from other sources and [turning] them [into] poetry by making changes in spacing and/or lines…"). That said— how do you feel about found poems?

CECILY: I think that in the game hide-and-go-seek, the hider secretly wants to be found. So, I like found poems because they remind us that poems want to be found, even though they may be elusive and elliptical, or hiding in a block of prose.

BT: I'm trying to start a chain, a chain of poets, sort of like a chain gang of poets. Can you please suggest a poet I should ask five fast questions to next?

CECILY: Jennifer Chang

Cecily Parks is the author of the poetry collection Field Folly Snow, which was a finalist for the Norma Farber First Book Award and the Glasgow / Shenandoah Prize for Emerging Writers. She is a PhD candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches in the undergraduate creative writing program at Columbia University.

Friday, August 28, 2009

THE POETRY CHAIN GANG (part 13 w/ Leigh Anne Couch)

The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Leigh Anne Couch.

BT: What triggered your interest in poetry?

LEIGH ANNE: My inability to write a lucid essay in college and falling in love with an artist. Since there was no way I could paint, I tried to fake it with words, so we'd have dreamy things to talk about. When he left, I didn't want to fake it anymore and decided to read what living poets were writing. That was exciting to me and as humbling as it was, I wanted to try to be a part of that community.

BT: Is there a topic you haven't covered in your poetry that you would like to cover?

LEIGH ANNE: Mother-love, both ways. I can hear the deep sighs out there and I feel it, too. Poems about mothering are set-ups for sentimentality and kitsch. But raising a person from complete dependency to their successful abandonment of you is such a powerful thing and, handled in the right way, has deep roots in the body, the culture, the society, and of course the self.

BT: What poetry book are you currently reading?

LEIGH ANNE: I'm currently reading a fabulous manuscript of poems by April Naoko Heck. It's her first book and it's called "Shelter of Leaves." I've read it three times now just trying to figure out why and how it works the way it does for me.

BT: Is there a poetry book on your bookshelf that you think is a "must have" for poetry lovers?

LEIGH ANNE: This question, as simple as it is, is really giving me fits. I can't name just one. I have really enjoyed seeking out first books by poets I love— I'm going with "Summer Anniversaries" (Donald Justice), "Lies" (C.K. Williams), and "Colossus" (Sylvia Plath). In addition, anyone who loves poetry because it makes them feel weird must read "The Orchard" by Brigit Pegeen Kelly.

BT: I'm trying to start a chain, a chain of poets, sort of like a chain gang of poets. Can you please suggest a poet I should ask five fast questions to next?

LEIGH ANNE: Cecily Parks

Leigh Anne Couch lives in Tennessee and is the managing editor of the Sewanee Review. Her poems have appeared in the Western Humanities Review, Shenandoah, 32 Poems, Alaska Quarterly Review, Cincinnati Review, Carolina Quarterly, and other journals. Her book, Houses Fly Away (2007), was the co-winner of the Zone 3 Press First Book Award.

Friday, August 7, 2009

THE POETRY CHAIN GANG (part 12 w/ Erica Dawson)

The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Erica Dawson.

BT: I love the title of your book "Big-Eyed Afraid" (winner of the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, 2006); I would have bought the book on the title alone. What made you ultimately stick with that title?

ERICA: First, thanks so much for the compliment. There were plenty of naysayers when I initially proposed the title. I stuck with it because I thought it provided a true trope for the entire book. Though there are moments where I seem quite sure of myself, some say, there's, to me, always an underlying current of self-consciousness and fear. And, my mom loved the title. Her opinion counts a lot.

BT: Did you ever buy a poetry book just because of its title?

ERICA: Definitely. Cate Marvin's "World's Tallest Disaster" was one of those buys. Barbara Ras' "Bite Every Sorrow" also caught my eye.

BT: When poet Juliana Gray suggested I interview you next, she said, "Erica…[writes] in meter and form…and she has a dexterity with these musty old forms that I really envy. She can handle something like a crown of sonnets…with such dexterity and sass." So what is it about these musty old forms that draws you to them?

ERICA: Ah, Juliana is so sweet. I'd say it's the "must." I love the fact that people consider the forms old and dusty. I have a little mission to prove that things from the 17th century and earlier were pretty damn sexy and sassy in their day, and still can be sassy today. I love any mix of old and new, anything from new songs that sample 60s music to an outfit that combines something vintage with something very contemporary. The poems work the same way for me. There's something unexpected about the combination of the older forms with modern language. I like catching people off guard.

BT: As an undergraduate, I didn’t care too much for the poet Sylvia Plath; now, I can’t get enough of her work. Is there a poet that you didn’t like too much at first, but enjoy now?

ERICA: I had that same relationship with Plath, actually. I think I was too caught up in her biography to give her poetry the attention and work it deserves. Also, my biggest love right now, the British Renaissance, was not a love of mine in undergrad. Not at all. It came later in graduate school. But now I can't get enough of "Paradise Lost," for example. No lie. It's amazing. Frightening, really sexy, and incredibly dense yet completely readable like a novel.

BT: I'm trying to start a chain, a chain of poets, sort of like a chain gang of poets. Can you please suggest a poet I should ask five fast questions to next?

ERICA: If you haven't already, ask Leigh Anne Couch. She's an amazing poet whose work has this kind of charm I've never seen before. You read or listen to Leigh Anne reading her work and you are utterly mesmerized by the sounds you hear, the words you digest, the rhythms and pictures she creates in your mind that stick with you, deliciously, long after you've closed the book or the reading has ended. Her voice, literal and figurative, is hard to shake, in a very good way. And, she's one of my favorite people in the world.

Erica Dawson’s book Big-Eyed Afraid (winner of the 2006 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize) was published by Waywiser Press in 2007. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2008, Southwest Review, Harvard Review, Raintown Review and other journals and anthologies. She lives in Ohio where she’s completing her PhD in English and Comparative Literature at University of Cincinnati.

Friday, July 10, 2009

THE POETRY CHAIN GANG (part 11 w/ Juliana Gray)

The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Juliana Gray.

BT: When poet Chuck Rybak suggested I interview you next, he said, "...I'm not sure if Juliana has any tattoos, but she sure could give a great answer if asked about them..." That said— I'm going to ask you the same question I asked him in his interview: sometimes poems are bigger than the page; what poem or line from a poem would you consider having tattooed on your body?

JULIANA: I am ink-free, though the cover of my book depicts a young woman with a tattoo of the Mars symbol on the back of her neck, and people sometimes ask if that's a picture of me. I like the idea of a tattoo, but I'm afraid of pain. As for a line of poetry on the body, I don't think anything can beat Harry Crews's bicep tattoo of cummings's "how do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death?" The only thing I might get that could compete with that is a line from Larkin's "Church Going" – "A serious house on serious earth it is" – as a tramp stamp.

BT: Do you do something poetry related everyday?

JULIANA: At the very least, I read the poem of the day on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily each morning. (This routine is complicated by the two cats competing for space in my lap and walking across the keyboard, but I manage.) I also keep a couple of books of poetry on the coffee table, and I dip in and out of them as I read a novel, grade papers, or putter around the house. Right now I'm reading a few poems a day from Jim Murphy's terrific book Heaven Overland. I know Jim from graduate school at the University of Cincinnati, where I also met Chuck Rybak, your last interviewee, and I'm just loving the book. In the poem "River Minstrels, No Date Given," he describes the figures in a photograph as "disguised quite as/ themselves, bent to survive the times." I wish I'd written that.

BT: I absolutely love your poem "Summer Downpour on Campus." I can't get enough of it. It gave me goosebumps the first time I read it and still does each time I read it— especially this part which, to me, was an unexpected surprise: "...but I am walking to meet a man/who'll buy me coffee and kiss my fingers— " I'm curious, how did you feel when that line came to you?

JULIANA: I'm blushing— thank you so much! That was one of those poems sparked by a real experience; I was teaching at Auburn University, and one August afternoon the sky just opened up while I was, in fact, walking to the local coffee shop to meet the man I was seeing at the time. When I sat down to write the poem, I tried to think of a small, affectionate token that wasn't too terribly cutesy – one of those little loving gestures that couples unconsciously perform with each other – and that's what I came up with.

BT: Writer's block— what would you prescribe?

JULIANA: I'm not sure I believe in writer's block. Certainly there are times when the creative powers are lying fallow and we aren't producing much or any work, but as for a "block"– some kind of barrier between you and the language – I just don't buy it. Louise Glück goes for months or years between books without writing a thing, but she's certainly not blocked— I think it can be a way of storing energy, recharging the mental batteries. Of course, I may just be blithely optimistic here. I've written very little in the last year, not because I'm "blocked," but because I don't seem to have much to say at the moment. The only piece of advice I might have is not to reject an idea or spark of a poem in advance, without even attempting to write anything. The most trivial-seeming starting point can lead to something really surprising and wonderful.

BT: I'm trying to start a chain, a chain of poets, sort of like a chain gang of poets. Suggest, please, the poet I should ask five fast questions to next?

JULIANA: This is a hard question. I've had the incredible good fortune to spend my last ten summers teaching at the Sewanee Young Writers' Conference and working on the staff of the Sewanee Writers' Conference. (In fact, today is the last day of the Young Writers' Conference, and the "old writers' conference" will begin next week.) Through both of those conferences over the years, I've met so many diverse and amazing poets— legends like Mark Strand, Andrew Hudgins, Donald Justice, and Mark Jarman; and emerging writers like Sandra Beasley, Dan Albergotti, Jake Adam York, Beth Ann Fennelly, Eric McHenry, Leigh Anne Couch— the mind boggles.

But if I can only suggest one, I'd pick my fellow SWC staff member Erica Dawson. Her book, Big-Eyed Afraid, won the Anthony Hecht Prize in 2006. It's just marvelous, personal and confessional and clever and funny and so, so brilliant. It's like nothing else I've read. Although Erica and I both write in meter and form, her approach is completely different from mine, and she has a dexterity with these musty old forms that I really envy. She can handle something like a crown of sonnets – the very thought of which intimidates the hell out of me – with such dexterity and sass. The woman is just too smart. I love her dearly, but I'd never play Scrabble with her.

Juliana Gray is the author of The Man Under My Skin (River City Publishing, 2005) and the chapbook History in Bones (Kent State University Press, 2002). Recent poems have appeared in New South, 32 Poems, Iron Horse Literary Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Alfred, New York, and is an assistant professor of English at Alfred University.

Monday, June 22, 2009

THE POETRY CHAIN GANG (part 10 w/ Chuck Rybak)

The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Chuck Rybak.

BT: When poet Stephen Frech suggested I interview you next, he told me that you are one of the readers for his publishing company Oneiros Press (which publishes poetry broadsides). When you read poetry, do you find yourself thinking now: “This would make a good poetry broadside?”

CHUCK: Absolutely. I found this happening as soon as I got my hands on the first completed Oneiros broadside, which was Albert Goldbarth’s poem "In the X-Ray of the Sarcophagus of Ta-Pero." This broadside is still one of my favorites. Visually, there is a profile view of a head, reminiscent of one of those cool phrenology models, with smaller heads floating inside of it. To the right of the main image is the poem, which includes the lines “I’ve felt the weight of another head / inside of my head, leaning its skull / against my skull as if to rest.” I’ve literally stared at this broadside for hours, and I sensed right away that Shawn Sheehy, the graphic designer for Oneiros, could do absolutely anything. I knew, of course, that the poems were good, but I had no idea that the broadsides would be that stunningly beautiful, that they would add so much to the text. What started as Stephen Frech’s project to publish a few poems on letterpress suddenly became this artistic enterprise without limitation. To your question, I soon found myself reading poems and analyzing how well they would translate into an Oneiros broadside. Some poems were great by themselves, but I had no visual narrative or context that added to, rather than merely represented, what was on the page. Other poems just cry out to be broadsides. Dan Albergotti, who you interviewed previously, is a perfect example. He submitted his poem “Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale” twice to Oneiros’ contest. Both times I read it and thought, “this would make an amazing broadside.” Luckily, Dan won the contest the second time through. For the record, I was right— it is an amazing broadside (and a fantastic poem).

BT: I love your poem “Tongue and Groove.” I’m always interested in knowing did the title come first or the poem?

CHUCK: In this instance, the poem came first. There have been times that a title has stuck with me right from the start – I have a poem called “Purple Heart” which fits that bill – but this time I had the poem entirely finished before settling on “Tongue and Groove.” To be honest, I was guilty of not heeding the lessons of Richard Hugo’s “The Triggering Town,” specifically his basic call for swearing off the truth. I was writing about a real floor that, technically, is not a tongue-and-groove floor. I’m embarrassed to write that. I was also foolishly searching for titles that I felt would be more reverent and profound, and since I was writing about reclaimed barn wood, I kept running through the images and sounds of a barn, the animals and people who would have lived with that wood— for the sake of exercise, let’s make up an alternate, terrible title right now: “The Stalls of Memories that were Never Mine.” That’s the kind of junk I was struggling with. When the floor finally dried after being stained, I even pressed my face to the wood, trying to see if there was some feeling I would get from it, some texture. Utter failure. I had the word “plank” in my head as well, which feels like it never would have worked. Finally, “Tongue and Groove” just felt right thematically, as well as having interesting connections to music, the human body, and so on. At first, I told myself that the title was a place holder, just in case I found something better. Instead, it became the title of my book.

BT: Did you read a poem today? If so which one? If not, what was the last poem you read?

CHUCK: I’ve been reading a lot of poems lately, and I have literary journals, chapbooks, and new books of poetry strewn all over my study at home. William Stafford’s poem “You Reading This, Be Ready” is stuck on my refrigerator, and I find myself reading lines from it quite a bit as I go back and forth from the kitchen. That being said, yesterday I sat down and read some poems by Craig Arnold. Unfortunately, I had never heard of Craig or encountered his work until his recent disappearance and death. I was moved by the public response to Craig’s disappearance, and I immediately started searching online to see if I could find some of his poems. I read “The Bird-Understander” and loved it, and then read it to my wife during dinner and the emotional impact was even stronger. His first book, Shells, finally came in the mail and yesterday I read the poem “Why I skip my high school reunions.” It’s pretty incredible. The title immediately caught my eye because I have skipped both reunions that my class has had so far. There’s this magical moment in the poem when the speaker, thinking back to high school, recalls being backstage with a girl on the opening night of a play and “she conjured out of the vast yards of her dress / an avocado and a razorblade, / slit the one open with the other, flayed / the pebbled skin, and offered me a slice.” Nothing this interesting ever happened to me in high school. To be honest, I don’t think I knew what an avocado was until I was thirty.

BT: Sometimes poems are bigger than the page. What poem or line from a poem would you consider having tattooed on your body?

CHUCK: Wow. This is a tough one. I’ll start by saying that I don’t have any tattoos, so this would be a big leap for me. The main reason I don’t have a tattoo is the standard line, “I can’t think of anything I’d want on my body forever” (other than my appendages). I was also turned off to tattoos early in my life when a friend of mine said he wanted Yosemite Sam tattooed on the back of each calf— that’s a lot to recover from. But, if I were there in the chair… I’d be tempted to take some lines from Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” maybe the rather unremarkable lines “And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” I’ve simply been maddened by the persistent misreading of this poem, yet each instance further cements for me what a mad genius Frost is. But, if it came time to actually pay for the work, I would take the last line from Robert Bly’s poem “Snowfall in the Afternoon” which reads “All the sailors on deck have been blind for many years.” First, I love Silence in the Snowy Fields, the book this poem appears in. There’s always been something about this line that holds me, simply on a personal level and my relationship with poetry. This book, and specifically this poem, helped me to see poetry in an entirely different way than I had previously. This poem feels playful and profoundly imaginative— who looks at a desolate field, blowing snow, a barn, and then converts that material into a giant, ice-encrusted ship sailing through the corn? Robert Bly does, I guess. I didn’t have a definition for “deep image” as a movement or style when I read this poem, but I certainly felt it. When I did finally learn about the “Deep Image School” I felt this poem had already made me an expert. That line is everything I hope for in my own writing: a chance to refashion the seemingly mundane as magical. Oh, and where on my body would I get this tattoo? Full extension across the shoulders sounds good.

BT: I'm trying to start a chain, a chain of poets, sort of like a chain gang of poets. Can you please suggest a poet I should ask five fast questions to next?

CHUCK: Juliana Gray immediately comes to mind. She’s easily one of the best poets writing today. I’m not sure if Juliana has any tattoos, but she sure could give a great answer if asked about them. Juliana is an incredible writer and I carry a deep admiration for her work. Her book The Man Under My Skin is out of this world, or to quote one of my favorite movies, “It will really blow your hair back.” Reading the title poem alone will be enough to keep you in your seat and read the entire book. There’s also a great poem about a museum of military history that concludes with this beautiful, yet truly frightening image of Adolph Hitler’s tea set. I can remember reading that poem and not being able to shake that image for days.

Juliana and I went to grad school together, but never got to hang out as much as I would have liked. But, in the time I did spend with Juliana, there was always that sense of being in the presence of a genuine artist. When her book came out I bought it right away – I hadn’t actually seen much of her work at that point – and I felt I was reading everything I knew to be true. If you’ve ever read a poem and said “I wish I had written that,” then you’ll know how I felt when I read Juliana’s book— I said “I wish I has written that” fifty-two times over.

Chuck Rybak is the author of Tongue and Groove (Main Street Rag, 2007). He is also the author of two chapbooks, Nickel and Diming My Way Through and Liketown, and his poems have appeared in War, Literature & the Arts; The Ledge; Pebble Lake Review; and Southern Poetry Review. He lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he spends no time thinking about Brett Favre and works as an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin— Fox Valley.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

THE POETRY CHAIN GANG (part 9 w/ poet Stephen Frech)

The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Stephen Frech.

BT: It’s 9 p.m., are you…
a.) just putting the finishing touches on a poem?
b.) just beginning a poem?
c.) reading a poem?
d.) not even thinking about poetry?

STEPHEN: I rarely work on poems in the evening any more. For one, I become so lost and animated by working on poems, by reading others’ poems I love, that were I regularly to touch up, begin, or read poetry at 9 p.m., I wouldn’t be able to sleep and I’d probably render myself unemployable for any daytime job.

Second, like a lot of people, I used to write at night, when the house was dark, when my imagination seemed liberated. The places my mind could wander felt magical and everything I wrote sounded like previously untapped, raw wellings of great material. I woke every morning and found that what I’d written was, instead, tired, boring mumblings, sometimes illegible scribbles as I had nodded off to sleep. I met writers in St. Louis, in graduate school, who maintained a more work-a-day schedule, rising early and writing undisturbed for hours. The transition for me, from working poorly at night to working productively in the morning was long and uncomfortable. I conditioned myself to wake at 5 a.m., then let myself sleep until 7 when I could work with attention.

So, I write in the mornings when my mind is fresh and alert and still feels attuned to the world the way I’d hoped it was when I worked at night, when I was simply over-tired and my head was spinning.

I’m often reading at 9 p.m., though, some fiction, mostly non-fiction. For a few years, for example, I consumed every book on arctic and Antarctic exploration I could find, accounts that gave voice to an inwardness, an interior life brought on by severe physical hardship. I can see that interest in interiority echoed in other ways in my own poems, so while I rarely work on poems at night, I am doing the kind of reading that fills me up with images and language that enter my poetry.

BT: When poet Rhett Iseman Trull suggested I interview you next, she said: “I’ll bet he’s got a poem up on his bedroom wall." Well, do you have a poem taped to your bedroom wall? If so, which one? If not, which poem would you consider taping to your bedroom wall?

STEPHEN: Rhett is right to bet I have poems up in the house. Virtually every room has poems on the walls, though strangely enough, my bedroom remains one of the few without a poem. My wife and I moved, so perhaps we simply haven’t settled on one yet.

I love poetry broadsides, I have for a long time, so I’ve acquired quite a few. Among the favorites currently on my walls is “Waiting by the Sea” by William Stafford. A friend found it in San Francisco years ago and bought it for me, knowing the broadside and I would be good for each other. Another favorite, a broadside I bought at Hungry Mind Bookstore in St. Paul before they transformed into Ruminator Books before they succumbed to the book market and closed for good, is “Passing a Truck Full of Chickens at Night on Highway Eighty” by Jane Mead.

I love the poem not because it champions courage and curiosity, but because the speaker recognizes a wish for her own courage in identifying with one of the livestock one sees so frequently on the highways here in the Midwest. One chicken, craning to see outside the cage, has its neck bent in the draft of the truck, or simply the force of traveling through the world, as it’s carted off (as we know) to slaughter.

BT: You run Oneiros Press which publishes poetry broadsides; can you tell me what makes a poem broadside-worthy?

STEPHEN: Your sense of “worthiness” reminds me of another bit of writing I have taped up, not a poem, but good advice for writers:

“Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”

I suspect Annie Dillard’s idea of a poem’s worthiness is one that acknowledges the struggle and the urgency of living.

Broadsides have always interested me, in part, because of their communal act of reading. Books, magazines, newspapers, though they can be read by many and discussed, don’t lend themselves to a shared, simultaneous reading. Broadsides, printed large and posted publicly, ask for that shared, communal consumption.

Because they’re posted as opposed to cradled in the reader’s lap, poems that succeed best on broadsides are those that make themselves available to readers on a first reading and invite and reward further readings. While you could say that all good writing rewards multiple readings, not all good writing gives itself so readily to the reader. Think of writers for whom the challenge is part of the reward: Dostoevsky and Hart Crane come to mind. They’re great writers, though hard to represent on broadsides.

BT: I consider myself a logophile (which is a lover of words). Is there a word you're terribly fond of at the moment?

STEPHEN: I was recently generating material for what I hope will become a poem and wrote the word “emberous” by which I’d meant ember-like, smoldering, fire-potential. In looking it up to see if such a word exists, I found the word “emblements” meaning crops legally belonging to the tenant. I love the short ee sounds, the two em’s. Purely associatively, it brought to mind the word “tribute” and its many uses and valences.

BT: I'm trying to start a chain, a chain of poets, sort of like a chain gang of poets. Can you please suggest a poet I should ask five fast questions to next?

: I immediately thought of Chuck Rybak for a number of reasons I trust will be evident in an interview with him. He’s a marvelous poet who enjoyed a stretch of publishing in a short period of time: two chapbooks and a full-length volume of poems. I’d enjoyed a number of poems in draft and early manifestations in journals. When the full-length book came out, I was surprised and delighted to see how much of it was new work I hadn’t seen, poems full of the quiet sureness that had been building in those others. The book felt a revelation, which I think is part of their charm for all readers: felt and surprising meditations on common, lived experience.

Chuck comes to mind, too, because he is one of the readers for Oneiros Press, and the one in fact who prompted me to start the press instead of fantasizing about it. Would I quit talking about a broadside press, he challenged one night over beers, and simply start one? So I did. We need friends sometimes to hear enough of our wishing to know, often before we do, that we have the energy to make it happen.

Stephen Frech has earned degrees from Northwestern University, Washington University in St. Louis, and the University of Cincinnati. He has published three volumes of poetry: Toward Evening and the Day Far Spent (1996), If Not For These Wrinkles of Darkness (2001), and The Dark Villages of Childhood (2009). He is founder and editor of Oneiros Press, publisher of award-winning letterpress poetry broadsides.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

THE POETRY CHAIN GANG (part 8 w/ Rhett Iseman Trull)

The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Rhett Iseman Trull.

BT: I love beginnings; one of my favorite poem-beginnings is: "The rusty zipper, the Pawcatuck river/fastens Rhode Island to Connecticut down/to the sea" from Leslie McGrath's poem "Renewal." Is there a poem beginning that you absolutely love?

RHETT: That’s a beautiful beginning, and such a perfect opening to that particular poem in which the journey along this river is the background to a couple’s journey through the years. It’s a powerful love poem. I love beginnings like that, beginnings that feel like a lift-off, that sweep me up with the feeling that I’m about to go somewhere. And some of the best beginnings, in my opinion, are those that take on more layers of meaning once you’ve read the whole poem, as McGrath’s does in your example.

One of my favorite beginnings is in “Mood Indigo,” by William Matthews, which opens this way: “From the porch; from the hayrick where her prickled/brothers hid and chortled and slurped into their young pink/lungs the ash-blond dusty air that lay above the bales/like low clouds; and from the squeak and suck/of the well-pump and from the glove of rust it implied/on her hand…” I could keep quoting, but I’ll stop there on that amazing image of the “glove of rust.” This is one of my favorite poems and I’m amazed at how, in those first few lines, Matthews creates this energy, starts something rolling that will build and build (he keeps up that anaphora for the first 15 lines) and saturate the poem and the reader just as this “mood indigo” has built up, moment by moment, for years, inside the young girl in this poem.

BT: What would you want your readers to say about you as a poet? For example, I'd want my readers to say, "That girl can write her butt off..."

RHETT: Well, just the idea that I might, one day, have people out there that I might think of as “my readers” is nice. I think I’d like them to say, “That poem really moved me.” That’s the most any of us could hope for, sending poems out into the world: that they reach someone and move someone, communicate somehow the feeling that inspired the poem in the first place.

BT: What made you want to start writing poetry?

RHETT: I think my short answer to that would be “my need for song.” The longer answer is that I started writing novels and stories at age 5, but poetry came later. I was around 12 or 13, difficult years for many reasons, and I was visiting a friend. She was older than me—in high school already—and had a beautiful voice. We were in a musical together that summer. She had one of the main singing roles, while I was ever-delegated to the chorus where my off-key singing might blend in and be lost among the stronger voices. But I loved it, loved being a part of the show and disappearing into my character (I always thought up elaborate back stories for my character, even in the chorus) and channeling the intensity of my feelings into songs.

Anyway, I was at her house and I think she sensed that I was struggling with some great unnamed depression that I’d been trying to keep all locked up inside; she showed me a notebook filled with poems she’d written, sort of in lieu of a journal. She let me read a few of them and I was struck. I still remember some of the lines. It wasn’t that they were brilliant poems or anything…it was just that I’d never thought of trying to take my pain and confusion and put it into a kind of music, give it a voice, as she had done. I went home and started my own notebook the next day. Those early poems were more than a kind of therapeutic venting, though they did serve that purpose. But I think my urge to write poetry was more of a need to search, a need to find the right words for emotions that had been too complicated for me to begin to express before. And whether we’re talking about depression or love or anger or hope, etc., I think that’s probably, to this day, what inspires me to try to write a poem. For me, it always starts with some great feeling and a reach to—not necessarily name or define it—but to give it some sort of shape and voice. And music. To give it music. To give into music. I think the same thing that drove me toward musicals in my teenage years drove me—drives me—to write poetry.

BT: In the First paragraph of a New York Times article by Sara London (November 7, 2008), London writes, "When I was 8 or 9 I copied a poem from a library book in loopy cursive and taped it to the wall over my bed." I tell you this, to ask you, today, if you haven't got one taped to your bedroom wall already, what poem would you copy from a book and tape to the wall over your bed?

RHETT: This question makes me happy. I like the thought of poems hanging up in people’s houses, and it’s interesting to think about which poem should hang in which room. I’ve got lots of poems taped to the closet door in my office, for instance, and we have a few broadsides up in our family room. But in the bedroom, right now, we have only one poem up. It’s called “Two Charms for Charm” by Fred Chappell. I was lucky to have Fred as one of my teachers in UNCG’s MFA program about 8 years ago, and at the time he was writing a book of cat poems. Half-jokingly, I asked if he would write a poem about my cat Charm. Well, he did it! He had me bring him a picture of her and write down some facts about her (i.e. “Charm Kitty’s favorite food is ham. She cries when I sneeze. She prefers her water in a mug. She was born in LA and traveled 3,000 miles in the car back to NC with me when she was just 4 months old.”). My mom copied Fred’s resulting poem in calligraphy and framed it for me. It’s one of my favorite poems and it’s a great one for the bedroom because it’s a kind of prayer, not just for Charm, but for all beings in our house. Part one pleads, “Frightful spirit, fly away” and part two asks, “Guardian genius, linger close.”

I’m inspired by your question to add another poem to the bedroom wall—right over the bed, sure. On Valentine’s Day this year, walking through the bookfair at AWP in Chicago, I stumbled upon what has to be one of the greatest love poems ever written: “Charismatic Ambulance Driver” by Mark Leidner. It was a broadside taped to a table with beautiful handmade poetry items. I sat down on the floor and read it over and over. I forgot where I was. I was struck by the beauty and the power of this poem. I bought it immediately for my husband, Jeff, who loves poetry as much as I do. As soon as I get a good frame for it, it’s going over the bed.

BT: I'm trying to start a chain, a chain of poets, sort of like a chain gang of poets. Can you please suggest a poet I should ask five fast questions to next?

RHETT: After that last question about taping a poem to the wall, I think you’ve got to talk to Stephen Frech. He’s a wonderful poet, whose new chapbook, The Dark Villages of Childhood is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. But he also runs Oneiros press, which publishes gorgeous poetry broadsides. I’ll bet he’s got a poem up on his bedroom wall.

Rhett Iseman Trull won the Anhinga Prize for Poetry for her first book, The Real Warnings (Anhinga Press, fall 2009). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The American Poetry Review, Best New Poets 2008, Iron Horse Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, and other publications. Her awards include prizes from the Academy of American Poets and the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation. She received her B.A. from Duke University and her MFA from UNC Greensboro, where she was a Randall Jarrell Fellow. She and her husband publish Cave Wall in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

THE POETRY CHAIN GANG (part 7 w/ Dan Albergotti)

The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Dan Albergotti

BT: When poet Doug Van Gundy suggested I interview you next, he told me that you love poetry as much or more than anyone he knows and that you are a huge fan of poet Jack Gilbert. Well in a Jack Gilbert interview I read, he, Jack Gilbert, said, "I like thinking of poetry as a love affair. A great deal of my poetry has never been printed . . . I don’t write poetry to be celebrated . . . I write poetry whether I publish it or not, because I’m in love." Would you say your love for poetry is similar?

DAN: You’ve got to love poetry for its own sake—you’ve got to love the act of writing it and find sustainable reward in that alone. In an essay that appeared in The Cincinnati Review in 2005, Alan Shapiro cited a letter by Elizabeth Bishop in which she claimed that what we want from art is the same thing necessary for its production, a "self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration." Shapiro claims that this is the essential urge toward writing. The writer yearns to achieve an almost supernatural state of intense concentration in which the self (with all its worries, fears, mundane concerns) is "forgotten," shed away. I think Shapiro’s right about that, and I do have a sort of "love affair" with that moment in the midst of creating the poem. Like Gilbert, I don’t write poetry in an attempt to be celebrated, and I would continue to write it if I were never again published.

At the same time, I don’t believe writing poetry is, or should be, a purely self-interested, solipsistic endeavor. The urge toward utterance, toward the recording of one’s words in writing, is the urge to be heard, to be read by others (and not just for the sake of applause). To write a poem is to make an empathetic gesture to the rest of the world, an attempt to connect at a deeper level than our daily interactions and superficial conversations will allow. So I guess to have a love affair with poetry is also to have a love affair with humanity. Or at least to try to.

BT: As an undergraduate, I didn’t care too much for the poet Sylvia Plath; now, I can’t get enough of her work. Is there a poet that you didn’t like too much before, but enjoy now?

DAN: There are many poets whose work I’ve come to appreciate more deeply as the years have passed. One that immediately comes to mind is Thomas Hardy. As an undergrad, I thought he was a genius novelist and a mediocre poet. Now I feel almost the opposite is true. Such changes of opinion aren’t uncommon, of course. The most striking in my case is probably the way my perception of John Keats has changed. When I was an undergrad studying the Romantics, I probably would have ranked him as my least favorite of the "canonical guys," coming in sixth after Byron, Blake, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. Today, I consider him not only the most important of the Romantics, but the second-greatest poet in the history of the language.

BT: Is there a poem you’ve written that even you can’t believe you wrote?

DAN: I love the ambiguity of your question. The word "even" suggests you mean a poem I’m impressed with, but my mind immediately goes to the many, many ones that I can’t believe I wrote because they now seem so unforgivably terrible! That’s a good sign, though. In the same essay that I cite above, Alan Shapiro says that despising our early work is "the price we pay for getting better."

In a more straightforward response to your question, I will say that I did have a strange experience about ten years ago when I drafted a poem called "Methuselah Dead." At that time, I had already published over twenty poems in literary journals, but still had an uneasy feeling about myself as a writer. I wasn’t completely happy with anything I’d written, and I felt like I hadn’t earned the right even to call myself a poet. When I finished "Methuselah Dead," I almost instantly felt as if something had changed. I thought to myself that I would never be embarrassed for having written that poem. And for ten years, that’s been true. So I guess you could say that’s a poem that, at least at one time, I couldn’t believe I had written.

BT: Novels get turned into movies; some short stories do, too. Is there a poem out there that you could see as a movie or inspiration for a movie?

DAN: First, I think all long narrative poems—like The Iliad, Beowulf, The Ring and the Book, etc.—should be out of bounds in a response to that question because those are really novels in the mode of poetry. Having taken those off the table, I’d have to say no. I guess I could imagine an experimental film being made from Eliot’s The Waste Land, but I can also imagine 99 directors out of 100 making something abysmally bad out of it.

Please note that I’m interpreting your question as an inquiry about feature-length film. There are some interesting things happening these days with poems being presented in/as short films, and I think that’s got a lot of potential.

BT: I'm trying to start a chain, a chain of poets, sort of like a chain gang of poets. Suggest, please, a poet I should ask five fast questions to next.

DAN: I’d recommend that you get in touch with Rhett Iseman Trull, a terrific poet and editor of the poetry journal Cave Wall. Her first collection of poems is coming out soon from Anhinga Press. She’s someone who loves poetry as much as I do, and I know you and your readers would be interested in her answers.

Dan Albergotti is the author of The Boatloads (BOA Editions, 2008). His poems have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and Pushcart Prize XXXIII: Best of the Small Presses. A graduate of the MFA program at UNC Greensboro and former poetry editor of The Greensboro Review, Albergotti currently teaches creative writing and literature courses and edits the online journal Waccamaw ( at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC.

Read Dan Albergotti's poem "Sunday Morning Argument" here:

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Poet Al Young discusses daybreak, Jazz, & "slithy toves" with me!

Check out the interview here:

"...I was lucky to grow up with music. Many will tell you - and I've said it myself - that poetry and music are kissing cousins. Actually, the two are altogether inseparable."

Monday, April 6, 2009

THE POETRY CHAIN GANG (part 6 w/ Doug Van Gundy)

The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Doug Van Gundy.

BT: When poet Ian Douglas suggested I interview you next, he said: “If you enjoy whiskey and talking poetry, Doug’s your man.” That said— would you happen to have a whiskey haiku/poem up your sleeve that you wouldn't mind sharing? If not, can you tell me something poetic about whiskey?

DOUG: First, I want to say that while I am from West Virginia, both of my parents are from Pittsburgh, so the chain isn’t completely broken here…

While I’m not much for occasional poems, this occurred to me while considering your very specific request:


Passed from glass to lips,
the spirit warms the body.
The body, warmed, sings.

The whiskey making process is a wonderful metaphor for the poetic process, because it needs time and darkness to mature into what it can be at its best, and if the process is rushed, the results can be both distasteful and disappointing. Making whiskey and making poetry both involve distillation, to my mind: the extraction and concentration of the essential.

That having been said, my little scrap of syllabic doggerel above is absolutely new and unconsidered, so make of that what you will.

BT: I see that you’re a poet as well as a fiddler— which one (poems or the fiddle) gets your undivided attention the most?

DOUG: The poems are the priority, without a doubt. But the fiddle is so tempting because the feedback is immediate—there is no waiting and watching, no postage and endless trips with the dog to the mailbox—when you pick up the instrument, the music happens upon demand and whoever is listening responds, for good or ill.

Music is something I do and love, but writing is something that I am; I don’t feel right without it. That looks awfully corny there on the screen, but it is absolutely true.

BT: There is a Langston Hughes poem called Daybreak in Alabama that begins: "When I get to be a composer/I'm gonna write me some music about/daybreak in Alabama...” Is there a place somewhere on earth where daybreak there would inspire you enough to "write [you] some music” or rather, a poem?

DOUG: Like many writers, I work best in the early morning and thus have a particular love for the hours around daybreak.

One of the sweetest mornings I ever spent was the first morning of a summer trip to Bruges, Belgium. I usually get up a little before the sun, and this morning was no exception. But, because of the latitude in Northern Europe, the sun rose at about 4:45 in the morning at that time of year. I got up, and without looking at my watch, showered and dressed and went looking for coffee, leaving my wife to sleep in the darkened hotel room. This popular tourist town was completely abandoned at that hour, despite being in full sun, and the effect was very eerie. It took me a little while to figure out what was going on, but by 6:00 AM, cafés and bakeries were beginning to open, and I was able to get my coffee and chocolate croissant. But for the first hour of that day, I had this 15th century Renaissance city all to myself, and I have rarely been so content. The empty streets were paved with the golden light of dawn.

I guess now I have to write the poem.

BT: There’s a literary legend that Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in six words only— a six word memoir that would tell the whole story; Hemingway wrote: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” My six word memoir would be “Poor papa raised four free spirits.” What would yours be?

DOUG: “Doesn’t follow directions very well.”

BT: I'm trying to start a chain, a chain of poets, sort of like a chain gang of poets. Suggest, please, a poet I should ask five fast questions to next.

DOUG: I’ve really enjoyed reading the responses of the other poets on your blog, and tracking down their work. I think that your readers would enjoy meeting Dan Albergotti from down in Conway, SC. Dan loves poetry as much (or more) than anyone I know, and is my brother of a different mother. Plus, he is a huge fan of Jack Gilbert, which keeps at little of that Pittsburgh sensibility in the air.

Doug Van Gundy’s poems and essays have appeared in The Oxford American, Ecotone, The Fretboard Journal, From the Fishouse., Goldenseal and other publications. A 2009 Pushcart Prize nominee, Doug teaches writing and literature at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, WV. His first book of poems, A Life Above Water, is published by Red Hen Press.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

O & S (April 2009)

Check out four poems by me— starting on page 58!

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Friday, February 27, 2009

THE POETRY CHAIN GANG (part 5 w/ Ian Douglas)

The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Ian Douglas.

BT: I read a recent interview with singer/songwriter & poet Anna-Lynne Williams (of the band Trespassers William). In it, she was asked what would the world be like without poets. Here is part of her answer: "...I wonder if I'm the only person that thinks that, that poetry is far more for the person writing it than the person reading it." See eye to eye or beg to differ?

IAN: I think there is a certain type of poetry to which this definitely applies— it may even be the majority of poetry. If I had to describe it, or give it some sort of name, well, I'll say this: it has something to do with communicating an individual's unique apperception of the universe and the very curious question of their existence within it. For some poets, their work is the linguistic ritual they use to grab hold of existence and hopefully make some sense of it. In that light, it's easy to see how this sense-making is a matter of considerable personal urgency. However, it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of an author's poetry to a reader. Perhaps, to the average reader, one's poems will have only passing significance. But I'd like to think there is someone out there who needs my poems desperately, as I've needed the poems of others.

BT: Writer's block—what do you prescribe?

IAN: Of course you would ask me this. I have to own up to the fact that I've spent far more of the last four years "blocked" rather than writing. You'd hope I'd be an expert by now. But advice, for what it's worth: write for the right reasons, I guess. If you don't know what those are— that might be the problem right there. It might be time to think about it. Also: If you aren't writing, read. If one book doesn't excite you, find another. Or maybe you need some context (try Wikipedia, or a biography). And find someone out there who is excited about writing, and see if you can catch what they've got. Or at least find someone to moan to (though too much of this is dangerous). In other words, shake, shake things up. Shake them again.

BT: Did you read a poem today? If so which one? If not, what was the last poem you read?

IAN: I did read a poem today. I'm working through A.R. Ammons' book, "Glare." Poem 37— which starts out "one types to please and appease, to/ belay the furies, to charm the real/ and unreal threats into a kind of/ growling submission"— seems remarkably on topic. A sampling:

my advice: my advice is, it's not
going to be easy, or else it is going

to be so easy you won't even know
it's happening: take a chance, stay

alert, have faith: how do you do
this: I have no idea: you "work it

out?" you remain compliant, yielding,
assertive, angry, grateful, cautious,

and type a lot... have

to work at it little by little: one
little bit enables another, so the

effect builds up and you wake up one
morning calm, at peace, or happy:

at least, one hopes so: do the best
you can, do

To go back to writers block: sometimes the problem is that the poem you are trying to write is not the poem you need to write at this exact time but you won't let it go and won't let yourself go in a new direction. You need a new model. Reading this book has really emphasized that for me.

BT: When I have a poem idea, I get butterflies and can't concentrate. How do you feel right before you get a poem?

IAN: I feel I'm the opposite. Concentration is supremely difficult to me, one of my most significant daily challenges. But if I've found the trail of a real poem, if I sniff something authentic, I'm suddenly focused and everything else falls away.

BT: I'm trying to start a chain, a chain of poets, sort of like a chain gang of poets. Suggest, please, a poet I should ask five fast questions to next.

IAN: I'm going to add a little geographic diversity (not that I don't love Pittsburgh) and suggest Doug Van Gundy of Elkins, West Virginia— an amazing poet, fiddler, and all around cad. If you enjoy whiskey and talking poetry, Doug's your man.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Best American Poetry (I'm interviewed!)

...Is food one of your muses?

Food is a recent muse because I have been honing my skills in the kitchen. To me, there is something poetic about the preparation of food and the heat involved ...

Read more here:

Friday, January 23, 2009

THE POETRY CHAIN GANG (part 4 w/ Jennylynn Keller)

The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Jennylynn Keller.

BT: I love beginnings; one of my favorite poem-beginnings is: "That rusty zipper, the Pawcatuck river/fastens Rhode Island to Connecticut down/to the sea" from Leslie McGrath's poem Renewal. Is there a poem beginning that you absolutely love?

JENNYLYNN: Sylvia Plath's "Morning Song". She says, "Love set you going like a fat gold watch."

BT: Novels get turned into movies; short stories do, too. Is there a poem out there that you could see as a movie or inspiration for a movie?

JENNYLYNN: "The Red Wheelbarrow" [by William Carlos Williams] or "We Real Cool" [by Gwendolyn Brooks]

BT: Poets & jocks— I have a weakness for both; which one do you think makes a better lover? How come?

JENNYLYNN: Jocks. But maybe that just means I haven't found the right poet yet.

BT: Are you working on a poem right now? If so, would you mind sharing the title? If not, what poetry related thing are you working on?

JENNYLYNN: "In Five Days"

BT: I'm trying to start a chain, a chain of poets, sort of like a chain gang of poets. Suggest, please, a poet I should ask five fast questions to next.

JENNYLYNN: I'm tagging Ian Douglas. There's just something about that 'burgh.

What's that you say? You want more Jennylynn— go here then:

THE POETRY CHAIN GANG (part 3 w/ Tony Mancus)

The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Tony Mancus.

BT: I recently read an old interview with poet Robert Graves. In it, he was asked "Do you consider yourself fortunate in having been a poet?" His answer: "There's no alternative. If you're born that way, that's your fate - and you've got to do your best. It's a way of life." I pose the same question to you— do you consider yourself fortunate in having been a poet?

TONY: Hmm. That's tricky. Fortunate for the kind of attention it's trained me to have. I do believe it's a way of life and a lot of poets aren't poets in the sense that it's their job to write poems. There are people who live with the same sort of intention and attention who do all kinds of things. Artists and carpenters and financiers and presidents and dog walkers and teachers and tailors. But I don't really know what makes someone a 'poet' or what makes someone fated to be this thing. The best handle I've got has to do with attention and intention. People who tend to write often notice things that other people may gloss over. And they're slightly-to-morbidly obsessed—with language and its play and their own humanity in a lot of cases and the words and world around them. It's weird trying to be a poet currently— like Paul was saying in your last interview, there are a lot of people concerned with the craft and production and circulation of poetry, but on a broad scale a lot of people in this country are scared and/or completely uninterested in it.

Jon Stewart, the night of the inauguration, said something like what method, other than a button on Dick Cheney's wheelchair, would get 2.5 million people off the national mall—then he showed a clip of all the people exiting once Elizabeth Alexander started reading her poem. Now it's still exposure for poetry but it shows something about the attitude most people in this country have about for what we do. But putting fear of inadequacy and ridicule aside for a while, it does feel very good to write and to make things. I do feel fortunate about that. I read somewhere that Williams said poets write to become better people and while that may seem very self-help-y and a bit like psycho-babble, you can take it to mean that there's a weird sort of accumulative effect that happens when you spend your life working on something that not too many other people care about. Over time the idea of self you have in your head comes closer and closer to the self that's walking around in the world, especially with writing since the person doing the work is constantly tweaking their perception. I hope that this is true at least and if it is, then yes, I feel very fortunate.

BT: Do you do something poetry related everyday?

TONY: I try my best to. Sometimes this happens and sometimes not. Some days I do a whole lot of poetry related stuff, like today for instance. I'm trying to type up material from my little black book and answer these questions and go back over a bunch of lines that aren't quite adding up right and later maybe make a couple of book covers.

It takes me an inordinately long amount of time to figure out what things are and where they're going. I don't know how this happens for other people. I ask them sometimes but feel like they consistently lie to me. A lot of people have very diligent and ordered writing practices and I am not one of those people. Teachers have always said to write every day and many of the days that I'm not writing, I wish I was. But that doesn't mean I'm not doing stuff that has to do with writing. Just being lazy, or cooking, or making a bookcase, or watching TV, or listening to conversations, or having them, or yelling at your neighbor's pets, or cleaning the grout, almost anything relates back to or can get incorporated into poems. And that's one of the most wonderful things about writing. About art in general. What feeds it is as much the ordinary as the extraordinary as long as we're tuned in.

Most often, especially as of late, writing happens for me when I'm in motion— like on the train in to work or when I'm driving. There's something about the road that clears my head in a way that allows for things to happen up there. I'm not stuck on how many dishes are in the sink or what number of papers I've got to not grade in order to have a sleepless Sunday night or whatever. I don't actually write while driving. In the past I've tried but it doesn't make for good travel really with all the head movements needed and the way roads turn and it's dark a lot of the time at night, hard to steady the paper. Sorry, I got headed off track here.

So anyway, yeah I try to do something poetry related most days.

BT: A starving artist appears on your doorstep: hungry for inspiration, thirsty for poetry— what do you feed him/her?

TONY: Plum tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil with some balsamic and good oil drizzled over top—a touch of salt and pepper. No, seriously, it's good stuff. But this is a question about reading, right? If I had a recording of Yusef Komunyakaa handy, I'd probably play that. His voice shakes something loose in people. Lorca's Romance Sonambulo, Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son which technically isn't poetry, but it is. Um. Blake and Elizabeth Bishop and Creeley and Harryette Mullen in some kind of smoothie with a dollop of Levis on top?

BT: I consider myself a logophile (which is a lover of words). Is there a word you're terribly fond of at the moment?

TONY: This past week I've been stuck on 'obfuscate.' I don't know why exactly. My girlfriend just had to take the GRE and she'd been studying flashcards with a bunch of $.75-$1.00 words on them. I can't say if this was one of them or not. I've always like the word 'liquefy'— something about the sounds there, but I never use it. Fear of water, maybe? I don't know. Basically any word that feels good in my mouth I like and I try to use and then figure out the meaning or if it's actually a word later.

BT: I am trying to start a chain, a chain of poets, sort of like a chain gang of poets. Suggest, please, a poet I should ask five fast questions to next.

TONY: Keeping it Pittsburgh— Jennylynn Keller

Want more of Tony Mancus? Go to:
Read a poem by Tony Mancus:

Thursday, January 22, 2009

THE POETRY CHAIN GANG (part 2 w/ Paul Siegell)

The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Paul Siegell.

BT: I enjoyed (and am still enjoying) your book, "Poemergency Room," because it's, to me, perfect for non-poets as well as poets. It's hard not to be inspired by it. That said: I would describe your book as a "cure for writer's block." How would you describe it?

PAUL: Thanks so much for reading it! So glad you're getting some pleasure and usefulness out of it. And, wow, a "cure for writer's block." That's a pretty funny, and awesome, way of looking at it. I've always loved books that sent me off into a writing flight, so I'm gonna take that as a gigantic compliment.

To pull some phrases from outta the book, I can describe Poemergency Room as a "curiosity dynamo" or a "dictionary playpen" that explores the ways that words – in sight and sound – can themselves be thrilled when placed into a poem.

And in that context, that of putting words and The Poem up on a pedestal, it could also be described as a book about a "realworldolescent" struggling with the relationship between "Fire Work" & "Hire Life," all the while taunting, "A cubical food fight? Rip-roarin' rhapsodic, I'm ready when you are."

I could also describe it by the feelings I get when I read it, to myself and to others, by the changes in their faces as they acknowledge certain lines, if they laugh or if they squint, and by the handshakes and conversations I have afterwards. Reactions and relationships. What the book does. I can describe it in the emails I get from old friends and even total strangers who request the craziness of a signed copy. Where the book goes, and where it takes me.

I can describe it as something that my parents can kvell over. I can describe it as something I worked really hard on, something I was fortunate enough to be able to put into the world. I can describe it as a volume of work that fulfilled yet another of my many dreams.

BT: Bob Marley is to reggae what _________ is to poetry? Please fill in the blank. Feel free to explain your choice.

PAUL: I and I wishes I and I had a real answer for this… Something this big requires a prophet, a messenger, a lion, an uprising, and I just don't know enough about poetry to answer it responsibly. Who knows? At any given moment, maybe any poet could fill the roll. Any time a poet writes about overcoming oppression, of any kind, or about freeing oneself or a people, then maybe there some dreads are growing.

BT: Poets—endangered species or in hibernation?

PAUL: Absolutely neither. Poets are up in the summer AND in the winter. If Ron Silliman's six-year-old blog just recently tallied over 2,000,000 hits, then we have a lot of folks messing about with the way language operates. He estimates that there are "ten thousand publishing poets in the English language." Maybe it's a slow burn, but poets ARE burning right now—My inbox doesn't shut up because of them! And judging from the many, many active poetics-focused blogs and listservs, and goodreads and facebook profiles, there seems to be poetry readings in this country every week, and not just in NYC.

Poems, all kinds of quality poems, are being published and offered to audiences all over the world and it can get pretty overwhelming tryna keep track of even two percent of who everybody is and all the cool and crazy things they're doing with words.

Poets are not hard to find. Poetry readers are.

BT: Sometimes poems are bigger than the page. What poem or line from a poem would you consider having tattooed on your body?

PAUL: "You are the music while the music lasts." T.S. Eliot

BT: I am trying to start a chain, a chain of poets, sort of like a chain gang of poets. Suggest, please, a poet you think I should ask five fast questions to next.

PAUL: Tony Mancus.

Paul Siegell's book Poemergency Room (Otoliths Books, 2008) can be purchased @ Want to learn more about Paul Siegell, check out his blog:

Read a poem by Paul Siegell:

Sunday, January 18, 2009

THE POETRY CHAIN GANG (part 1 w/ Missy McEwen)

The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Missy McEwen.

BT: I am a logophile, which is a lover of words. Do you have a favorite word at the moment? If so, what is it and why?

MISSY: I love words, too! My favorite word at the moment, and probably for always, is "obsession". The synonyms for that word – fixation, passion, mania, fascination – delight me. I think it is the definition that I love. I think it is the S's in the word. Actually, I don't know what it is exactly, but ever since I was a teenager, I loved the connotations of that word.

BT: Names can be poetic, too. That said: name Erykah Badu's next baby.

MISSY: Yea, baby names— another favorite topic of mine. I hope she didn't have it yet. If it is a boy: Soldier; if it is a girl: Salvation, nicknamed "Sally."

BT: Are you working on a poem right at this moment? If so, can you share the title? If not a poem, what poetry related thing are you working on?

MISSY: I'm not writing a poem right now (I wish I were), but I have to record myself reading two poems I wrote last year; it is for the publisher of a literary magazine my poems are featured in (MiPO, July 2008).

BT: Sometimes poems are bigger than the page— what poem could you see painted on a wall?

MISSY: As I recollect the July you - Milledgeville, 1944 by Susanne Kort. The line: "...come in the drawl/of southern evenings, from under the taffeta leaves,/accompany the fireflies, ruminate, come back" would look so good painted in jet black on a wall or a wooden table.

BT: I am trying to start a chain, a chain of poets, sort of like a chain gang of poets. Suggest, please, a poet I should ask five fast questions to next

MISSY: A chain gang of poets, I like that, kind of like a daisy chain, too, and like a chain letter. I suggest Paul Siegell.

Missy McEwen is a recent Pushcart nominee & creator of